Oakland-North Carolina Preview

The Associated Press

North Carolina coach Roy Williams is ready to go big again.

The Hall of Fame coach came to this decision well before he learned he would be without two of his top guards.

The 12th-ranked Tar Heels won't have leading scorer P.J. Hairston and senior Leslie McDonald for Friday night's opener against Oakland due to NCAA eligibility concerns.

''It's an ongoing issue, a compliance issue with the university and the NCAA,'' team spokesman Steve Kirschner said Thursday. ''We're working together on that, but they're not playing. Really that's all we can get into at this point.''

Authorities twice cited Hairston during the offseason while driving a rental vehicle linked to a felon, raising the possibility of an improper benefits violation. He averaged a team-high 14.6 points and 39.6 percent shooting from beyond the arc last season to help the Tar Heels go 25-11 and reach the NCAA tournament.

The school hasn't specified McDonald's issue, though UNC had to send a letter this summer ordering a company that makes designer mouth guards to stop using McDonald on a website promoting its brand.

McDonald had made at least one social media post last year about wearing one of the company's mouth guards. NCAA rules generally prohibit athletes from endorsing or promoting a company or product.

McDonald averaged 7.2 points in 30 games last season and is in line for a larger role with Reggie Bullock's departure for the NBA.

Williams said both players have been practicing well, though neither had been on the first team in drills for the past week or so.

''Well, you know, it is frustrating, but it's also a long process,'' Williams said. ''We're trying to do what we can do. The NCAA is trying to do what they can do. But it's what it is. I'm sure they - they meaning the NCAA - would like to settle all their cases in five minutes, too. We've just got to try to continue working with them and working with our student-athletes and do the best job we can do and see what happens.''

Williams will be moving forward with a bigger lineup. He's hoping another year of experience for the big men who struggled last year and the addition of two McDonald's All-Americans up front means the Tar Heels will have better production inside this season.

''We do need the big guys to score inside,'' Williams said. ''... I really think our best teams have always been when we've had good balance that we can score inside and score from the 3-point line, score on the break and score in set offense. So that's our challenge to be able to do all that.''

With the additions of Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks inside, the Tar Heels have more options to play alongside junior forward James Michael McAdoo.

''Some of our guys are still young, so it's going to take some games to really gauge how far we can go,'' sophomore point guard Marcus Paige said. ''But I think we have the talent and the versatility in our lineup to be a top-five team that can make a run at the Final Four.''

Paige's improved play through the season's final month was a big reason why the smaller lineup worked so well. Paige averaged about 10 points and shot 44 percent from 3-point range over the final dozen games, including a strong performance against Miami in the ACC tournament final. Paige has added some muscle to better handle physical play this season and needs to pick up where he left off in March.

The 6-9 McAdoo has flirted with entering the NBA draft after each of the past two seasons, but he's back with another chance to bolster his pro prospects. Williams has talked about playing McAdoo at both forward positions, though he lacks a true back-to-the-basket game and some polish on the perimeter. If McAdoo can make a leap forward in either area, it would make the Tar Heels even tougher.

The Tar Heels could have their confidence tested in a demanding start to the schedule. By mid-December, UNC will have faced NCAA tournament participants Belmont and Davidson, made a trip to Michigan State and had a visit from Kentucky. There's also the chance of a matchup with reigning national champion Louisville in the Hall of Fame Tip-off Tournament in November.

Even with Hairston and McDonald out, Oakland probably won't be much of a challenge for North Carolina, which has won 80 of its last 82 home openers.

The Tar Heels will put much of their focus on slowing down Travis Bader, who averaged 22.1 points as a junior last season. He's hit 39.0 percent of his 3-pointers over the last two seasons, with his 263 marking the most in the nation.

The Golden Grizzlies are set to begin in the Horizon League after going 16-17 last season in the Summit League.

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